Marie-Antoinette’s sleigh rides
Christmas in the 18th century was not the holiday we know these days. Of course, the religious celebration of the holiday of the Nativity of Christ was the same, but gifts, know as étrennes, were not exchanged until the 1st of January.
Yet people liked to take advantage of the pleasures of the season. Marie-Antoinette, as a young Queen, took this opportunity to enjoy the sleigh rides she had known as a child in Vienna. I propose we go back to the Memoirs of her First Chambermaid, Madame Campan on the topic:
The winter following the confinement of the Comtesse d’Artois [1775-76] was very severe; the recollections of the pleasure which sleighing-parties had given the Queen in her childhood made her wish to introduce similar ones in France.
This amusement had already been known in that Court, as was proven by sleighs found in the stables, which had been used by the Dauphin, the father of Louis XVI. Some were made for the Queen in a more modern style. The Princes also ordered several; and in a few days there was a fair number of these vehicles around. They were driven by the princes and noblemen of the Court. The noise of the bells and pompoms with which the horses’ harnesses were decorated, the elegance and whiteness of their plumes, the varied shapes of the carriages, the gold with which they were all trimmed, made these parties a delight for the eye. The winter was very favorable to them, the snow remaining on the ground nearly six weeks; the drives in the park afforded a pleasure shared by the spectators.
No one imagined that any blame could attach to so innocent an amusement. But the party was tempted to extend its drives as far as the Champs-Elysées; a few sleighs even crossed the boulevards; the ladies being masked, the Queen’s enemies took the opportunity of saying that she had traveled through the streets of Paris in a sleigh.
This became a momentous issue. The public discovered in it a predilection for the habits of Vienna; but all that Marie Antoinette did was criticized. Sleigh-driving, smacking of the Northern Courts, found no favor among the Parisians. The Queen was informed of this; and although all the sleighs were kept, and several subsequent winters lent themselves to the amusement, she would not resume it.
It was at the time of the sleighing-parties that the Queen became intimately acquainted with the Princesse de Lamballe, who made her appearance in them wrapped in fur, with all the brilliancy and freshness of the age of twenty, the image of spring, peeping from under sable and ermine.
Marie-Antoinette is only twenty at the time, but it is clear that already she is extremely unpopular. Her love of sleigh rides is ascribed to her Austrian origins. Also the fact that she was obviously and publicly enjoying winter amusements while the poorest in Paris froze to death on the streets caused much resentment.
Last but not least, the Queen’s sister-in-law, the Comtesse d’Artois, had just given birth to a son and heir, while the Queen herself would not present the King with a Dauphin until 1781, six years later. Vicious, lewd pamphlets circulated in Paris, fostering rumors that the Marie-Antoinette had many lovers, bot male and female.
Also this is precisely the time when Marie-Antoinette became friends with another lady who would meet a tragic end during the Revolution: the Princesse de Lamballe. One must of course avoid the temptation of reading too much into this in retrospect, but Madame Campan gives us the rather sad conclusion: the sleigh rides were abandoned after that one winter of Paris discontent, never to resume.